When Canadians talk about slavery, we often point with pride to the role our country played in the mid-1800s as a safe haven for Americans escaping captivity via the Underground Railroad. This, however, is only half the story. Like the United States, this land has its own history of slavery – and it is a history we should never forget.
When did slavery first appear in what is now Canada?
Slavery in what is now Canada predates the arrival of Europeans, with some Indigenous peoples enslaving prisoners taken in war.1 Europeans brought a different kind of slavery to North America, however. Unlike Indigenous people, Europeans saw enslaved people less as human beings and more as property that could be bought and sold. Just as importantly, Europeans viewed slavery in racial terms, with Indigenous and African people serving and white people ruling as masters.
The runaway slave, who shall continue to be so for one month from the day of his being denounced to the officers of justice, shall have his ears cut off, and shall be branded with the flower de luce on the shoulder…. On the third offence, he shall suffer death.
The colony of New France, founded in the early 1600s, was the first major settlement in what is now Canada. Slavery was a common practice in the territory. When New France was conquered by the British in 1759, records revealed that approximately 3,600 enslaved people had lived in the settlement since its beginnings.2 The vast majority of them were Indigenous (often called Panis3), but Black enslaved people were also present because of the transatlantic slave trade.
What was the transatlantic slave trade?
The transatlantic slave trade helped shape the presence and role of slavery in Canadian history. With the increasing use of African enslaved people in North America, a pattern of trade emerged that has since been called the “trade triangle.” European merchants would leave Europe for Africa, travelling in ships laden with goods. In Africa, they would exchange their goods for enslaved people and then transport them to the Americas, often in cramped and inhumane conditions. In the Americas, the surviving enslaved people would be sold and then goods produced by slave labour would be carried back to Europe for sale. Slavers saw their trade from a purely economic standpoint and viewed enslaved people as just another set of “goods” they could transport and sell. With this mentality, slavers denied the fundamental human rights of millions of African men and women.4
Slavery in British North America
Slavery continued after the British conquest of New France in 1763. The territory was eventually renamed British North America, and Black enslaved people came to replace Indigenous enslaved people. Compared to the United States, enslaved people made up a much smaller proportion of the population in British North America. This means that some of the worst traits of slavery in America, such as the employment of overseers and the horrible practice of forcing enslaved people to reproduce, did not happen in what is now Canada. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that enslaved people in British North America were well-treated. The very nature of slavery meant that its victims were stripped of their basic human rights and exploited. Most wills from the time treated enslaved people as nothing more than property, passing on ownership of human beings the same as they would furniture, cattle or land.5 Defiant or troublesome enslaved people were often severely punished. Physical and sexual abuse was always a very real threat.
Had I the inclination to employ soldiers which is not the case, they would disappoint me, and Canadians will work for nobody but themselves. Black slaves are certainly the only people to be depended upon.
Enslaved people often resisted the institution of slavery. They fought back in many different ways: by asserting their humanity in the face of a system that wished to deny it to them, by running away from masters or by assisting other runaways. In fact, in 1777, a number of enslaved people escaped from British North America into the state of Vermont, which had abolished slavery in that same year.6
This is what needs to be acknowledged in Canada…. We don’t want people telling us it was mild because they [enslaved people] ate beef or chicken, or what have you. We’re talking about, within these Canadian colonies, enslaved Africans…who had all kinds of violence committed upon their bodies.
Indentured servitude in Canadian history
For many years, the practice of indentured servitude existed alongside slavery in what is now Canada. Under the system of indentured servitude, individuals signed a contract committing perform unpaid labour for a set number of years in exchange for transport, shelter and food.
Indentured servitude was cruel and exploitative, but was different from the slavery that was practiced in New France and British North America. At the end of their contracts, indentured servants were free to go, and sometimes received a payment of land and goods. In contrast, slavery defined humans as property and involved lifelong forced labour. The children of enslaved people also became property, making slavery intergenerational.
In British North America, if Black enslaved people were freed, they often still had to work as indentured servants for several years. On Prince Edward Island in 1796, an enslaved man named Dimbo Suckles was freed, but only on the condition that he work for his former master as an indentured servant for seven years, from 1796 until 1803. Historian Jim Hornby notes that such indentured servitude contracts were “the then-standard rate” for freedom.9
The decline of slavery in British North America
By the late 1700s, attitudes to slavery among the free population of British North America were beginning to change. On March 25, 1807, the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire – of which British North America was a part – making it illegal to buy or sell human beings and ending much of the transatlantic trade. Slavery itself was abolished everywhere in the British Empire in 1834. Some Canadian jurisdictions had already taken measures to restrict or end slavery by that time. In 1793 Upper Canada (now Ontario) passed the Anti-slavery Act. The law freed enslaved people aged 25 and over and made it illegal to bring enslaved people into Upper Canada.7 On Prince Edward Island, the complete abolition of slavery was pronounced by the legislature on 1825, nine years before the Imperial abolition of 1834.8
The abolition of slavery allowed the British colonies in North America to become a safe haven for escaped enslaved people in the United States, with many making their way North via the famous Underground Railroad. The story of the Underground Railroad is a positive moment in Canadian history, worthy of commemoration. We must also recall, however, that for more than two hundred years, slavery happened here, too.
This story was written using research conducted by Mallory Richard, a former researcher and project coordinator at the CMHR.
1 Charles G. Roland, “Slavery” in the Oxford Companion to Canadian History, 585.
2 Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History, second edition (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), 9.
3 Refers to “Pawnee,” an Indigenous nation which inhabited the basin of the Missouri River. Canadian Museum of History, Virtual Museum of New France, Population, Slavery: https://www.historymuseum.ca/virtual-museum-of-new-france/population/sl… (accessed 22 August 2018).
4 James A. Rawley, The Translatlantic Slave Trade: A History, revised edition (Dexter, MI: Thomson-Shore Inc., 2005), 7.
5 Winks, The Blacks in Canada, 53.
6 Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze, Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience (Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1996), 29.
7 Canadian Heritage, Historic Black Communities, Black History Month: https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-mont… (accessed 22 August 2018).
8 Jim Hornby, Black Islanders: Prince Edward Island’s Historical Black Community (Charlottetown: Institute of Island Studies, 1991), 8.
9 Hornby, Black Islanders, 30.